Fans of the modern jazz trio Tyrant Lizard know Ray Larsen as the owner of a beautiful trumpet sound and a love of American melodies and the tradition of musical improvisation. His new album continues to ignore musical category, while embracing the new designation as singer/songwriter.
Songs to Fill the Air does include plenty of improvisation. The instrumentation is largely instruments not unusual to a traditional jazz album. Indeed, many of Seattle's finest improvisers (and a few from New York) form the heart of his band for this album.
"High Low" is a short and sweet ballad with flourishes on clarinet, flute, and Larsen's trumpet over stately piano chords undergirded by his soft vocals singing the song's title and humming peacefully in overdubbed harmonies. It's beautiful, but leans toward late-era Beatles pop experimentation more than jazz.
Lyrics take a central role on most of Songs to Fill the Air, with Larsen's vocals sounding like the novice singer he admits to be. That said, it's a charming voice. But a voice I was certainly surprised to hear.
Larsen told me that singing is so much more "exposed than trumpet playing. Singing is just something I've done, and loved, mostly in private. I've truly practiced trumpet most every day for 20 years."
Of course, singing trumpet players in jazz include Chet Baker, Clark Terry, and the legendary Louis Armstrong. "You can hear his trumpet sound in his voice," Larsen says. "Singing songs is part of a trumpet tradition that I always wanted to participate in."
Raised on a steady diet of folk music and singer/songwriters in his childhood, as well as experience gained in high school musicals and theater, Larsen's move into writing lyrics and singing seems inevitable. "I wanted to explore song writing for a long time," he says. The versatile songwriter and musician Van Dyke Parks proved to be influential, as Larsen explores songwriting that combines his love of pop melodies with the adventurous improvisation he's learned in American jazz.
Larsen has good news for fans of his trumpet playing, this addition of vocals is simply an addition to his musical toolbox. He also notes his voice and his trumpet tone are coming from the same place.
"My priority (on both instruments) is having a personality in the sound, and I think that comes across on both. That said, the voice can sound pretty good when its used with lots of musicality but without much training. The trumpet, ...not so true!" Larsen says.
More than "pretty good," Ray's Songs to Fill the Air is an excellent collection of jazz-informed chamber pop for a beautiful spring day. It should be enjoyed with friends, but at a distance for now. Larsen says he hopes to celebrate this new album in concert as soon as possible, so keep your eyes and ears open for more.
The New Cool airs Saturdays at 3 p.m. The program is hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.